Teaching Opinion

The Purpose of Education and the Meaning of Democracy

By Harry C. Boyte — November 17, 2015 3 min read
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Dear Deb and Colleagues,

This weekend we’re having a 25th reunion and reflection on the youth civic empowerment initiative Public Achievement, in Dayton, Ohio. It reminds me how much I’ve always thought “culture” first, not “structure.” I got this from the civil rights movement and SCLC’s citizenship education program, for which I worked. In civil rights there was a strong influence of the Scandinavian folk schools. Like folk schools and also the “Theology of the People” movement which schooled Pope Francis, the movement, at least in SCLC’s part, held that while structural proposals are important, a cultural lens is the starting point.

Another way to put it: I would argue that even the most powerful examples of democratic school reform - or “being a good citizen” -- will continue to be fragile, no matter how compelling the proposals for reform, and even the most powerful coalitions for structure change will have only temporary success until we renew a much larger understanding of democracy itself (of course these elements are interactive). Revitalizing a vibrant public narrative of democracy seems crucial if the larger public is to see any strong rationale for “preparing students for democracy.” Today, when democracy is so shrunken - it mainly means elections - if you say you’re “educating for democracy” people think you’re talking about a voters’ guide.

I’m struck by how little the “so what?” question is asked. Our American Commonwealth Partnership coalition, aimed at strengthening the public and democratic purposes of education, worked with the National Issues Forums to organize two national conversations about the purposes of higher education. Thousands of people participated. The forums were full of enthusiasm.

Again and again people said some version of what a college freshman said in an early test. “This is exciting. But I’ve never heard the question, ‘what is the purpose of education?’ asked before!” Similarly, David Senjem, the Republican minority leader in the Minnesota Senate, said, “The question of purpose is profound. In all the years I’ve been in the Minnesota legislature I’ve never heard it asked.”

This was the central topic of the conversation between the writer Marilynne Robinson and President Obama last September in Iowa. He sought her out because he loves her writing, like her novel Gilead. The conversation is published in the New York Review of Books, November 5th and 19th (the recording is at itunes.com/nybooks ).

Robinson argued that earlier in American history, “there was the conscious sense that democracy was something people made collectively.” In other words, people saw democracy as a way of life, and the president was a collective symbol of a democratic culture. She also said individual respect was closely tied to “the achievement of a democratic culture.”

Robinson went on to say freedom and success have been narrowed by the hypercompetitive culture of education, which focuses on “economic utility,” the bang for the buck. Obama conceded the point, observing that banking seems to be valued much more than teaching.

Did the conversation have anything to do with the administration’s half step back from its relentless focus on testing? Marco Rubio didn’t get the message in the Republican debate last week. He called for fewer philosophers and more welders because welders “make more money.”

The idea of philosophically minded welders who contribute to democracy was nowhere in sight.

Remarkable stories at the PA 25 year reflection have again and again shown how much young people and teachers, alike, want to become agents of change, practicing effective “citizen politics” -- rural Missouri, inner city Minneapolis and St. Paul, Houston, Texas, Boulder Colorado, upstate New York, Catholic as well as public schools. As a young reporter told me the other day when I was describing stories of such citizen politics, “even though my generation doesn’t know this exists, they’re hungry for it.”

A public narrative of education and democracy is crucial to spreading such work on significant scale.

Can we use the 2016 centenary of John Dewey’s Democracy and Education -- and the election season -- to stimulate debate about these questions?

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.